Grip of Putin's censors tightens
A popular news anchor was pulled off the air last week, in a troubling trend for the independent press in Russia.
The tactics of pressure brought to bear against Radio Ekho Moskvy - the last independent broadcaster on the airwaves in Russia - vary with the political climate. But they often have the familiar flavor here of the old Soviet playbook.
"We know where your child is walking right now" is a pager message that has bedeviled news anchors at the station. Anonymous callers have issued threats to intimidate staff and chief editor Alexei Venediktov.
Other times the quest for favorable coverage is gentler, discussed at a fine restaurant over a bottle of wine with an official from the Kremlin - ironically among Ekho Moskvy's closest listeners.
"President [Vladimir] Putin has always considered the press to be an instrument to solve a problem, not part of civil society," says the unruly-haired Mr. Venediktov, from his studio office.
Indeed, despite Mr. Putin's rhetoric about free speech, his four-year tenure has witnessed spreading state control of television broadcasting. Virtually every independent TV voice has been silenced, including last week that of Leonid Parfyonov, one of Russia's most outspoken and popular current-affairs anchors.
His firing raises new questions about the state of press freedom in Russia, where liberal critics charge the Kremlin with deepening authoritarian rule. Russia ranked just 148th in press freedom last October - behind Zimbabwe and Afghanistan - in a list compiled by the group "Reporters Without Borders."
Mr. Parfyonov's top-rated "Namedni" program was shut down, just as it began to broadcast an interview with the widow of a Chechen separatist leader, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, to Russia's Far East time zones. In February the leader was gunned down in Qatar and two Russians face trial in Qatar over the killing.
The official reason for dumping the program was that the interview could affect the outcome of the Qatar case. But the star journalist dismissed that as an excuse and went public.
"Don't teach us how to love our motherland," Parfyonov told Izvestia newspaper. "I have been working as a journalist for 25 years, and in all that time I've heard, 'It's not the right time yet, brother, not the time.' One should understand that information has its own value."
Neither Parfyonov nor Ekho Moskvy are anomalies in Russia these days. The Glasnost Defense Foundation reports that 10 journalists were murdered, 96 assaulted, and 24 media offices attacked in 2003. Some 378 court cases were also brought - down slightly from more than 400 for each of the previous two years - and in 24 cases the plug was pulled on programs while on the air.
Such tactics do not always concern Russians, if they are aware of them. An April poll by ROMIR Monitoring found that 74 percent believe that press freedom in Russia somewhat or fully exists, or "is beyond all control." A similar ROMIR poll last January found that 76 percent of Russians felt some censorship to be necessary.
"It's a combination of Soviet tradition, and this lack of culture of tolerance, of criticism, and respect for the media," says Yasen Zasursky, dean of the journalism school at Moscow State University.
Television - the only source of news for the majority of Russia's 145 million citizens - has been hardest hit, though many other outlets also feel the heat. "We try not to think of what will happen next - we are involved in close combat, and don't want to think about future battles," says Venediktov, whose 14th-floor radio studio offices are lined with portraits of famous guests, from Bill Clinton to Mikhail Gorbachev. On his own door, an electricity warning sign reads: "Attn: Danger of Death."
The Kremlin makes contact twice a week on average. Besides serving as a primary news source, the station also has its uses for Russia's powers that be. "We are [used as] proof, in the West, of freedom of speech in Russia," says Venediktov.
The intimidation of media outlets grew in the run-up to parliamentary elections last December, and then peaked prior to the presidential vote in March. "Putin has said that some problems can be solved in the toilet, so we can say democracy and free press [in Russia] can be called 'toilet democracy,'" says Alexei Samokhvalov, director of the National Research Center for Television and Radio, whose group awarded a professional prize to Parfyonov last year.
"It's not a democracy based on law, but based on force and control," says Mr. Samokhvalov, a former adviser to the press ministry in the 1990s.
Though the number of independent media voices is dwindling, analysts point to one positive change: the "popular" press is slowly coming closer to breaking even. "Unfortunately, our media can't feed themselves," says Mr. Zasursky. "They have to rely upon sponsorships of rich people or from the government, which makes them victims of the state and corporate control."
Independence is a historic challenge, with the state-controlled gas company Gazprom owning a 66-percent stake in Ekho Moskvy. The journalists control the remaining, blocking stake. "They are very vulnerable," says Zasursky. "Mr. Venediktov is very sophisticated.... He knows when he is walking close to the abyss, and he's careful not to fall into it. But this dance is difficult to perform."
Reporters Without Borders used 53 criteria to rank press freedoms in 166 countries from Sept. 2002 - Sept. 2003.
32. United States*
166. North Korea
* Not including US press in Iraq